"I've never fallen in a creek before," my 10-year-old son informed me after a day of camp at Locust Grove Nature Center. A mud-stained T-shirt and shorts bore witness to his words. Yet his tone wasn't filled with frustration, but pride. "I caught a tadpole," he added, a wide smile crossing his face.
I felt a pang of guilt, thinking back to childhood summers spent at my grandpa's cabin: picking wild blackberries, tending the garden, digging for earthworms, fishing from a jon boat. It's true that while I have a fondness for soil, I have an aversion to mud. Have I really never taken my son and his siblings to wade in a stream?
"Kids don't get the opportunities to play outside the way that my generation — or your generation — did," Scilla Taylor, manager of Brookside Nature Center, told me. Sitting on a bench under the leafy forest canopy outside of Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda, Taylor and I chatted while watching — and listening to — a variety of birds.
The smallest of the four nature centers operated through Montgomery Parks, Locust Grove was once the site of a toboggan run. The skyrocketing cost of electricity — and a faulty business plan — led to the conversion of the land into a nature center. Diverse habitats, such as pine forest, meadow and floodplain, are all represented here.
Sitting outside of the main building, you can almost imagine a sled whooshing by. The Nature Exploration Area and Butterfly & Hummingbird Garden are upslope; birdfeeding stations and Cabin John Creek — the site of my son's tadpole triumph — are down the hill. The nearby materials shed was once the refrigeration unit for the toboggan run.
Taylor, a confident woman with a friendly smile, is running the day camps at Locust Grove Nature Center this year. Each week of camp has a different theme focused on nature. Taylor, with a background in education, grounds the lessons in science. Compressed air bottle rockets, for example, might be used to introduce the idea of seed dispersal. But the true goal of camp, she told me, is to give kids free choice for play in a natural setting.
"We make sure that there are several different options for kids to choose from," Taylor said. For example, during exploration time, children might try painting, building forts, nature journaling, or making friendship bracelets. They can spend a long time on an activity or try something for a few minutes and then jump to something else.
This flexibility has proven popular with campers, and the remaining weeks of camp at Locust Grove are currently at full capacity, with many potential students waitlisted. Fortunately, Locust Grove's day camps are slated to return next year.
"This is the third year that we've run the camps here," Taylor said. "Each year has been more successful than the last."
This July marked my family's first experience with camp through Montgomery Parks. I started to fret when I first learned that camp at Locust Grove would be held outside. Could my kids handle life without air conditioning and electronic games?
As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Each day, both boys came home happy, filthy and tired. They even enjoyed two campfires in the sweltering heat (although they didn't win the award for bringing a zero-waste lunch).
"We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows," my older son told me. "I also cooked cheese — it tasted horrible. The other thing that tasted horrible was graham crackers roasted over the fire," he said with a grin.
My sons' positive experiences with camp come as no surprise to Taylor. In her experience, programs offered through the Montgomery County nature centers are the best.
“I don’t think you’ve got a better bargain anywhere in the country," said Taylor. "We have top-notch naturalists who know everything from astronomy to zoology. They are dedicated to engaging the public with their natural surroundings.”
Taylor added, “We’re really fortunate in Montgomery County to have a wonderful park system. The four nature centers that are run through the park system are scattered [throughout the county] so that nobody’s really too far [away to enjoy them].”
My older son is currently lobbying Taylor to raise the camper age limit at Locust Grove so that he can return next year. But I'm sure that we will be back to the nature center, regardless. My toddler has discovered the butterfly garden.
To learn more about the courses and camps offered through Montgomery Parks, visit ParkPASS. There is still space available in some of the other summer camps.